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BIODIVERSITY: Indigenous Peoples Fight Theft

Julio Godoy

BONN, May 24 2008 (IPS) - Amongst the suits in the luxurious hotel hall, Sebastian Haji immediately catches the eye. He is small, dark-skinned, and wears a crown of feathers on his head.

Sebastian is a Machineri Indian from the Amazons region in Brazil, and he is in Bonn for serious business with the suits. He is here to fight biopiracy.

"Multinational companies are stealing the knowledge and resources of Amazonian people, and international institutions and our own government are just looking at the thieves," Sebastian told IPS. "And this robbery is taking place despite international conventions and alleged legal protection of our rights anchored even in the Brazilian constitution."

Like many other representatives of indigenous peoples from around the world, Sebastian is in Bonn for the UN conference on biodiversity May 19-30. The conference is taking place within the framework of the UN Convention on Biological diversity (CBD), the international treaty adopted at the Earth Summit in Rio in June 1992 to protect biodiversity.

The CBD's three main goals are conservation of biological diversity, sustainable economic use of flora and fauna, and the equitable sharing of benefits arising from genetic resources among all countries. The last of these is a euphemism to describe the fight against biopiracy.

Biopiracy means, for example, how Amazonian indigenous peoples might lose two of their traditional healing methods to multinational companies.

"We have a plant, the ayahuasca (banisteriopsis caapi), and the sweat of frog, the kambô (phyllomedusa bicolour), which our spiritual leaders (healers) use as medicine," Sebastian told IPS.

The ayahuasca, which means "wine of the soul", has been used for centuries by the indigenous peoples of the western Amazon Basin to brew a ceremonial drink which contains a hallucinogenic, dimethyltryptamine.

"Our spiritual leaders use the ayahuasca in religious and healing ceremonies to meet with good spirits, expel bad energy, diagnose and treat illnesses, and divine the future," Sebastian said.

For more than 20 years, ayahuasca has been at the centre of a legal battle between representatives of indigenous peoples and the U.S. company Cielo Herbals. The U.S. company is now growing the plant in Hawaii and other territories, and commercialising the drink.

The case of the kambô frog, also known as the monkey frog, is similar. Amazonian people have for centuries used sweat secretion from the frog on burns.

Scientific researchers have found that the secretion contains peptides and opiates that have analgesic properties and are capable of combating ischemia, a condition in which the blood flow (and thus oxygen) is restricted to a part of the body.

"Our healers know how to use the frog's secretion," Sebastian told IPS. "Now, it is being used in other places incorrectly, and this has led to the death of patients."

Several U.S. companies, universities and researchers, including the Seattle-based ZymoGenetics Inc., have filed for patents on the frog's sweat.

Sebastian said such biopiracy occurs despite numerous international conventions and Brazil's own constitution of 1988. Brazil has also ratified the International Labour Organisation's Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, also known as ILO Convention 169. Another is the UN convention on biodiversity, which is being debated in Bonn.

Article 8.j of this convention says that signatory states will formulate legislation to "respect, preserve and maintain knowledge, innovations and practices of indigenous and local communities embodying traditional lifestyles relevant for the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity."

The convention also calls for states to "promote their wider application with the approval and involvement of the holders of such knowledge, innovations and practices, and encourage the equitable sharing of the benefits arising from the utilisation of such knowledge, innovations and practices."

The Bonn conference is debating binding legal rules that the UN is scheduled to approve in 2010 in Japan to enforce the convention on biodiversity.

Yolanda Hernández, a Kaqchikel-Mayan woman from Guatemala says ILO convention 169 also calls for protection of natural resources in areas inhabited by indigenous peoples. But only 19 countries have so far ratified the convention, which is not binding.

"All these international conventions are dead letter," Sebastian said.

"For us indigenous peoples, the protection of our biodiversity resources is also the protection of ourselves," Hernández told IPS. "But our governments and the international organisations are not really concerned with that."

"We do not protect just ourselves," Sebastian said. "We protect the whole humanity. Look at the weather: never in human history has nature shown so many symbols of resistance towards human action."

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